Mark Steyn

On the Town

Mister Ed and Mona Lisa

Jay Livingston and Ray Evans celebrate their centenaries this year - Mr Livingston in March, Mr Evans this Wednesday. Who are they? Well, among other things, they wrote this:

When I was just a little girl,
I asked my mother, 'What will I be?
Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?'
Here's what she said to me:

Que Sera Sera
Whatever will be will be
The future's not ours to see
Que Sera Sera...

Doris Day's fatalistic anthem was simultaneously Number One in Britain and Number Two in America, albeit under different titles. On one side of the Atlantic, it was "Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be)" and on the other it was "Whatever Will Be Will Be (Que Sera Sera)". On the film credits, it's "Whatever Will Be". But whatever the title will be it was a big hit. It's a strange not quite categorizable song that's lingered in the memory. Miss Day's recording is featured in the movie Girl, Interrupted, while Heathers prefers the Sly and the Family Stone version. A year or two back, I was sitting in a restaurant in Miquelon, the less populated island of the French colony Saint Pierre et Miquelon, and a contemporary version of "Que Sera Sera" came over the speakers. I asked the charming waitress, Mathilde, who was singing, and she told me it was a vedette from Québec called Ima. A couple of weeks later, I was in a joint in Vermont, and another young chanteuse sang it in contemporary style, somewhat less successfully.

It was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, and, if you've never heard of 'em, don't worry about it; they never did. When kids met Jay Livingston, they were impressed not that he was the guy who wrote the theme song to "Mister Ed", the celebrated TV show about a talking horse, but that he was the guy who sang it, too. He'd done it on the demo, and the production company decided they liked it just as it was, with Livingston warbling:

A horse is a horse
Of course of course
And no one can talk to a horse of course
That is, of course
Unless the horse/Is the famous Mister Ed

Etc. Other than that moment of vocal glory, he belonged to a line of Hollywood songwriting teams who, unlike their Broadway counterparts, never became household names - Warren & Dubin ("I Only Have Eyes For You"), Robin & Rainger ("Thanks For The Memory"), Fain & Webster ("Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing") ...and Livingston & Evans.

I met Livingston over the years at various songwriters' gatherings. He was a thin man who was generally the tallest composer in the room. "You're Ray Livingston," I said, introducing myself. "No, I'm Jay Livingston," he said. His partner was Ray Evans. In the absence of Ira and Myra Gershwin, they were the only songwriting team that rhymed. The only other professional Ray and Jay partnership I've ever heard of were two financial advisors who used to host "The Ray & Jay Financial Show" Monday evenings at 7pm on CJAD Radio in Montreal.

Livingston and Evans were partners for over 60 years. Every once in a while, they tried the theatre but, as Livingston put it, "I hated Broadway. Everyone was so superior." So they stuck to Hollywood and wrote "Buttons And Bows" for The Paleface, "Mona Lisa" for Captain Carey USA and the only good urban Christmas standard, "Silver Bells", which Bob Hope sang in The Lemon Drop Kid. A lot of the rest of the time, they wrote title songs, which isn't the easiest occupation. If you asked him nicely, Livingston would sing the title song he composed for The Mole People, a 1956 sci-fi film about a lost community of albinos living under the earth's surface.

This is what you call assignment work: no composer walks down the street going, "I've got this great title for a song: 'The Mole People'." But, at their best, Livingston and Evans soared above the requirements of the assignment. This won them the first of three Oscars:

East is east
And west is west

And the wrong one I have chose
Let's go where
They keep on wearin'
Those frills and flowers and Buttons And Bows
Rings and things and Buttons And Bows…

Livingston and Evans weren't exactly big men on backlot in 1947. They'd had a couple of pop hits but they were relatively new to the movies. As Time magazine reported in 1948:

Two Hollywood tunesmiths were singing the blues. 'Every producer wants a song just like some other song. They want another Stardust. We write it for 'em. But it's tough. We have to please the publishers, the song pluggers, the singers, the disc jockeys and the public. But before we even get that far, we have to keep the musical director, the producer, the star and the director happy. If Betty Hutton's hairdresser doesn't like your stuff, brother, you're dead.'

That was the way Songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans talked—but they really had no complaint coming. For two years, Evans & Livingston, both 33, have been eating high on the hog. Their first big hit was a song called To Each His Own, which made them about $80,000, enough for each of them to buy a house and get married.

Their houses were about to get a lot fancier. "At that time," recalled Evans, "we were low men on the totem pole in the music department." But Paramount decided to assign them to the new Bob Hope picture – which, as it turned out, featured totem poles. The film was to be called The Paleface and Hope was Painless Potter, a cowardly dentist from back east on the loose in the wild west and accompanied by Calamity Jane, played by Jane Russell, which is the kind of calamity most of us like in a jane. The incompetent Painless was a diversionary front for her activities. Hard to believe Jane Russell would be looking for a diversionary front, but there we are. They needed a song for Hope to sing to Russell. She's running around in chaps and he's the chap who's getting the runaround. What do you write for that? Evans remembered it this way:

We had a very creative producer, and he said, 'Why don't you write a song about how Bob Hope is a tenderfoot in the west, he hates it, and he wishes he was back in the east where the girls were pretty and there was civilization and society and everything?' Now on the way back from the producer's office to our office on the Paramount lot, which was about a minute or two minutes, somehow in my mind I got the idea of a kind of rhythm: 'Let's go where the girls keep wearing those frills and flowers and buttons and bows, rings and things and buttons and bows.' The minute we got to our office, Jay sat down at the piano and went da-da-dah dah da-da-da-da da-da da-dah da-da-da dah…

The clippetty-cloppy rhythm was just right for the movie – Hope sings it in a covered wagon, and the song alludes directly to his predicament:

My bones denounce
The buckboard bounce…

You can hear the buckboard in the tune. It's a simple song, but written in the jaunty buckboard bounce of a wagon rumbling westward across a bumpy trail and strung around an Americanized take on "East is east, and west is west, and ne'er the twain…" Hope likes his gals citified and refined, not in chaps and buckskin. "Buttons And Bows" is a "bouncy lament" (in Stanley Green's phrase), which is perfect for a western number that's anti-western. There used to be a whole bunch of those – "Way Out West," wrote Rodgers and Hart, "where seldom is heard an intelligent word". But "Buttons And Bows" isn't about snobbery. It's a man pining for femininity. If you pick up the CD he made with Michael Feinstein right at the end of his life, you can hear Jay Livingston giving a marvelously heartfelt rendition of the verse:

A western ranch
Is just a branch
Of Nowhere Junction to me
Give me the city
Where living's pretty
And the gals wear fi-ne-reee….

…and into the chorus. Alec Wilder had a theory that "contrived country songs" are so memorable because they eschew the fourth interval (and in this case also the seventh, except for one quaver). Whether or not he's right, I doubt Livingston and Evans conceived it that way: they wrote all of a piece, some words, a melodic line, some more words, a middle eight, until the whole thing was complete. And, in any case, there are plenty of "contrived country songs" that are nowhere near as big as this. As Time reported back in '48:

They worked up a bouncy little tune for Bob Hope to twang to Jane Russell while leading a covered-wagon train in a western called The Paleface. Record companies recorded it, then held back on it, as usual, until about ten to twelve weeks before the movie was due for release. Last September the record companies began to let it spin. By last week, Dinah Shore's record of Buttons and Bows was No. 1 on the hit parade. It was just the songwriters' good fortune that by the time their tune finally came out, the U.S. was in a mood for "corn belt" music with words like:

'East is east and west is west
And the wrong one I have chose;
Let's go where you'll keep on wearin'
Those frills and flowers and buttons and bows.'

Paramount was slightly embarrassed by its sudden success: Buttons and Bows might be as cold as Constantinople by the time the movie is released at Christmas. But Tunesmiths Evans & Livingston hope to pocket $20,000 apiece from it.

They did a lot better than that. Aside from Gene Autry's recording, it was the gals who went for the song: Evelyn Knight got to Number 14, Betty Jane Rhodes Number Nine, Betty Garrett Number Eight, the Dinning Sisters Number Five, and Dinah hit the top for ten weeks. And by the time the movie opened, the song was so big it got star billing. The posters read:

Bob Hope, Jane Russell and 'Buttons And Bows'

The Paleface

It was so big they reprised it in Son Of Paleface, with Hope as Painless Potter's son and Jane Russell squeezed into the kind of get-up he wanted her in all along. When she descends the staircase of the saloon shoehorned into a scarlet bodice, steam begins to rise from Bob's pipe. Standing alongside, Roy Rogers is completely unmoved. "What's the matter?" asks Hope. "Don't you like girls?"

"I'll stick to horses, mister," says Rogers – which more or less confirms Hope's general view of the neighborhood:

Don't bury me
In this prairie
Take me where the cement grows…

The song put in a third appearance at Paramount – in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. William Holden sneaks out of Gloria Swanson's mausoleum and heads off to a party with all the young movie crowd. Livingston and Evans are in there, seated at the piano and playing "Buttons And Bows". They'd written another number for the scene, "The Paramount Don't Want Me Blues", but Paramount thought it was too in.

Their second Oscar was for "Mona Lisa", and the third came from an unlikely source. Alfred Hitchcock wanted Jimmy Stewart for The Man Who Knew Too Much, his 1956 Hollywood remake of one of his early British films. But Stewart's agency, MCA, told Hitchcock they'd only give him Stewart if he took another of their clients, Doris Day, as co-star. So Hitch agreed. Then Doris demanded a song. So Hitch caved again.

"We had never met him before," Ray Evans recalled a few years ago. "And Hitchcock said, 'I don't know what kind of a song I want, but it's got to be the kind of song that a mother would sing to a little child.' The picture takes place in Europe and North Africa. Jimmy Stewart is a diplomat-" Mr Evans' memory was a little faulty here: Stewart was playing a doctor. "-and Hitchcock said, 'I've written it into the plot because it's the part when the little boy is kidnapped, when Doris Day finally finds him. She finds him by singing the song and hearing him echo her in the distance and she knows where he is.' But we got the title 'Que Sera, Sera' and wrote it on that basis and then we had to play it for Mr Hitchcock and he said, 'Gentlemen' - and Jay could imitate him very well. I can't do that - he said, 'Gentlemen, when I first met you, I didn't know what kind of a song I wanted. That's the kind of a song I wanted.' He said, 'Thank you very much. Goodbye.' And we never saw him again."

In the picture, with Doris Day singing to a young child, you can sense the director doesn't know what he's got - the artlessness of the song seems to have thrown poor old Hitch. Miss Day didn't like it. She thought it was a child's song and would never be a hit, so she did it in one take and said "That'll do", and it became the biggest hit of her career. But Livingston never cared for the number, either. He prided himself on being able to "write simple", which most composers are too insecure to do, but he thought "Que Sera, Sera" was too simple. His favorite song was "Never Let Me Go", because he was proud of the chord changes, which the jazz guys love and is indeed a work to be proud of.

Still, I once mentioned to Livingston that I'd heard "Que Sera, Sera" sung by baying Millwall fans on the footie terraces. "What words do they use?" he asked.

So I told him:

Mi-illwall, Millwall
Millwa-all, Millwall, Millwall
Millwa-all, Millwall, Millwall
Mi-illwall, Millwall.

(Repeat until knife fight.)

"You can tell they're not professionals," he said. "All those melismas."

But English football yobs love the song. If your team gets to the FA Cup final, you sing:

Que Sera Sera
Whatever will be will be
We're going to Wem-ber-lee
Que Sera Sera.

And if England get to the World Cup you sing

Que Sera Sera
Whatever will be will be
We're going to Ger-ma-nee [or It-a-lee, or any other trisyllabic venue ending in a long "e"]
Que Sera Sera.

As a rule, Evans wrote mostly words, Livingston mostly music, but they never formally divided up the credits because, in an arrangement that permanent, the point is moot. Generally speaking, Evans would write some lyrics first, Livingston would pick out the lines he liked or images he took a shine to and build a tune around them, then Evans would rework the lyric. Usually, lyricists are more sensitive to tunes than composers are to words, but Livingston knew how to make the lines sing. I love the slightly goofy, introspective formality of "Mona Lisa":

Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep
They just lie there
And they die there...

Was it Dorothy Parker who lifted that for some one-sentence play review? "It just lies there and it dies there." The real skill lies in writing those words to those notes, the peculiar combination that plants a line in the language. It's a perilous thing, too – Evans originally wanted to call "Silver Bells" (his Christmastime-in-the-city song) "Tinkle Bells", until Livingston's wife pointed out he'd have to be nuts. Instead of a seasonal blockbuster, he'd have a jingle for an incontinence product that alerts you in the nick of time. "I never thought of that," grumbled Evans. "That's a woman's word. I was very unhappy because I hate to rewrite. I was always lazy."

But there's something about "Que Sera Sera" that transcends mere hit status. Maybe it's what Livingston regarded as the excess simplicity or Evans' deployment of a foreign phrase but it's one of those numbers that sounds as if it's been around longer than it has, belonging to the same pseudo-folk category as their earlier hit "Golden Earrings".

The hits grew thinner in the Sixties, and they took to writing with Henry Mancini ("Dear Heart", and the lyric to the "Peter Gunn" theme). In the late Eighties, Bob Hope asked them for a song about the touring life. Pushing 90, he was still on the road more than Motorhead and he'd got fed up singing Willie Nelson's "On The Road Again". So Livingston and Evans came up with a few ideas and called him up at his hotel in Montana.

"What've you got?" he said.

They ran through some titles, and one he liked: "I'm Available".

"That's it!" he said. So they wrote it up – "If the circus comes to town/And they need another clown/I'm Available." You get the idea. It was the last fruits of a partnership that had begun over 40 years earlier, when "Buttons And Bows" beat out "For Every Man There's A Woman", "It's Magic", "This Is The Moment" and even "The Woody Woodpecker Song" to bring home the 1948 Best Song Oscar. The song also has the distinction of being the only Livingston & Evans Academy Award winner that Ray Evans never heard on vacation in Afghanistan. The house band in his hotel played "Mona Lisa" and "Que Sera, Sera" but never "Buttons And Bows", presumably because references to women in "peek-a-boo clothes" would have got any Talibs in the crowd a little over-heated.

Oh, and Paramount got a bit more use from the song, too - on the small screen this time. On an episode of their sitcom "Frasier", Dr Crane was making his annual appearance on the local PBS telethon where it had been his custom for some years to sing "Buttons And Bows". This time round, though, he decides he's going to do something more befitting to his status, something from Rigoletto – Verdi rather than Livingston and Evans. At the last moment, live on air, he chickens out and announces that by popular demand he's going to stick to his classic rendition of "Buttons And Bows", and promptly forgets all the words, reducing the number to gibberish:

My bones denounce
The fearful trounce
And la-la la-la mole that grows
Ba-da Seuss and a pom caboose
And a panda hop and pantyhose
You'll look buppity Buttons And Bows…

Cute. But I think I'll stick with the original. The close of the lyric has one of my all-time favorite couplets from the entire American songbook:

Gimme eastern trimmin'
Where women are women
In high silk hose
And peek-a-boo clothes
And French perfume
That rocks the room
And I'm all yours in Buttons And Bows…

"French perfume that rocks the room": a lovely example of how one word ("rocks") can freshen up even the most familiar image. The songs of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans have rocked the room for 70 years.

~Don't forget many of Mark's most popular Song of the Week essays, including "My Funny Valentine", "Summertime" and "As Time Goes By" are collected together in his book A Song For The Season, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.

from On the Town, January 31, 2015


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